Sunday, February 3, 2008

Tanaka Tanuki Tonighto!

A scene from Pom Poko (1994)

A tanuki kicking back--of course!


In my apartment in Forest Hills, NY, I have a Japanese roommate. He stands about twelve inches tall and has a potbelly, he’s always carrying around a sake bottle with a mischievous grin, and he wears a perpetually stoned look in his eyes, as if maybe he attended one Grateful Dead concert too many.

His name is Tanaka-san (“Mr. Tanaka” in Japanese—I call him Tanaka Tanuki), and he is a Shigaraki-yaki tanuki. An ornamental ceramic Japanese tanuki, or raccoon dog, manufactured in the village of Shigaraki outside Kyoto, whose main industry is, well, mass-producing ceramic tanukis for an eager Japanese market. No kidding.

That's one big tanuki

(You may have noticed that tanuki statuettes are often deployed in front of Japanese restaurants and bars, welcoming customers and promising a good time. Under one arm they always keep a book of their IOUs—bar bills they never intend to pay. Ceramic tanukis are very common Japanese front-porch or lawn ornaments. Forget gnomes.)

A very cute tanuki family

I purchased Tanaka-san on my second day in Himeji in August 1995, right after starting work as a high school English teacher under the JET Program, at the local Juntendo hardware store, to the amazement of the Japanese teacher I was with, my so-called go-between. (Why would a gaijin—a foreigner—be interested in owning a tanuki?) After I installed Tanaka-san in my study, he was very popular with visitors, especially pretty Japanese girls. Sometimes I'd come home and find the place littered with empty Sapporo bottles, the radio blasting out J-Pop (usually Chisato Moritaka or Yuki Uchida), and there would be Tanaka-san, dancing with pretty girls and kicking up a storm. Sometimes the neighbors complained.

A sexy female tanuki. Furries, beware!

Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi as Princess Tanuki (2005)

My love affair with tanukis began a few years previously, in New York’s Kinokuniya bookstore, where I picked up a beautiful art book called Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Art of the Supernatural by Stephen Addiss (George Brazillier, New York, 1985). This magical book, which I cannot recommend highly enough, has a chapter entitled "The Trickster in Japan: Tanuki and Kitsune."

Tanukis look like raccoons or badgers, but they’re not. Biologically, tanukis are the oldest existing members of the genus canis; they’re not raccoons, they’re actually very primitive dogs. (Wikipedia has an excellent entry on tanukis, and I’m indebted to it for many details.) They only inhabit Japan, Korea, and Siberia. In Japanese folklore, tanukis are the most prominent trickster figures.

A tanuki climbing a tree

Tanukis are mischievous, jolly, and warm-hearted, adept at disguise and shape-shifting. They’re also gullible and easily deceived. There’s a famous folktale about a tanuki that was sneaking around a temple one dark might, looking to steal some food. When he heard the priest approach, the tanuki instantly turned itself into a tea kettle.

But then the unsuspecting priest placed the tanuki/tea kettle over the hot wood fire, and suddenly the tanuki screamed, changing shape immediately before the startled priest, flinging its arms out and kicking wildly, and the out-tricked tanuki howled off, scorched, into the darkness. Such is the power of this single folktale that tea kettles shaped like tanukis are very popular in Japan. Everyone loves to see a trickster get his comeuppance.

A netsuke tanuki, carved of ivory--and none too happy looking

Tanukis also have huge balls. Testicles, that is. In real life, tanukis have prominent testicles. But in Japanese folklore, tanukis have gigantic testicles, inflatable at will, that can be used conveniently as drums, swinging weapons, or picnic blankets. The comic possibilities are endless. It’s rude rural humor.

And you thought I was kidding

As soon as I learned about tanukis, I thought it was so wonderful that Japanese folklore could produce a creature that was so ridiculous, lovable, mischievous, and cute—in other words, so human. Tanukis are (round-faced) warmhearted practical jokers and inveterate liars who will always confess to the truth, if pressed hard enough; unlike (long-faced) kitsunes (foxes), who will never admit the truth and who honestly enjoy hurting people.

Bill Clinton is a tanuki. George W. Bush is a kitsune. Therein lies the difference between them.

Heartless kitsune! Unforgivable!

A cold-blooded killer sheds crocodile tears: our nation will never recover

A very, very naughty tanuki!

(There is still a popular school of thought in Japan that classifies you either as tanuki-faced or a kitsune-faced. Either you’re round-faced or long-faced, and that’s supposed to determine your personality. It’s kind of like the widespread Japanese belief that your blood type dictates your personality and destiny. People get married according to blood type in Japan. Really. And of course, if you happen to have a particularly unpopular blood type…)

A stuffed tanuki (dear me)

Origami tanukis

There’s an old joke in Japan. One day a tanuki and a kitsune got together, and they ended up tricking each other!

A kitsune shrine

A wicked kitsune tempting a young girl

A carved wooden tanuki, using his belly as a drum

While living in Japan, I used to tell Japanese proudly that I was often compared to a tanuki. I meant that I was easy-going, fun-loving, and a kidder. Little did I realize that when you call someone a tanuki in Japan, you’re calling them a liar—and here I was, proudly announcing to everyone that I was a pathological liar! No wonder they regarded me warily sometimes. A classic case of unintentional cultural misunderstanding.

Mt. Fuji reflected in beautiful Lake Tanuki, Shizuoka prefecture

In the United States, the trickster figure is the rabbit. West African slaves brought trickster stories about Brother Rabbit to America. In the 1880s, a white Southern writer named Joel Chandler Harris recorded slave folktales he'd heard as a youth as the Uncle Remus stories, the most famous of which is the tale of Br'er (Brother) Rabbit and the Tar Baby.

Later, with the advent of Hollywood in the 1930s, Br'er Rabbit became Bugs Bunny, who is now the reigning American trickster.

Tricksters love disguises--that's how you can tell them

But American folklore has no trickster as warm and lovable as the tanuki. The funniest Shigaraki-yaki tanuki I ever saw was on sale in a tourist shop in Matsuyama, just outside Dogo Onsen. It was a karaoke tanuki, and it had to be seen to be believed: a roly-poly tanuki, mouth frozen open, howling into a microphone, with the same slightly astonished eyes (after drinking too much sake, of course) agog. What else would a Japanese tanuki be doing but hanging out in a karaoke shop, drinking sake, and belting out enka (traditional Japanese blues)? It was the clearest indication I'd ever seen that tanukis are comic self-portraits that the Japanese people paint of themselves.

Inveterate counterfeiters, tanukis love to pass off leaves to unsuspecting humans as paper money

You’ll be glad to hear that that remarkable karaoke tanuki is presently in my possession. I’ve also heard of a jazz tanuki—a hipster tanuki wearing shades and blowing a saxophone, like the young Bill Clinton on The Tonight Show in 1992.

A fishing tanuki

I used to date a Japanese girl whose grandfather was the Buddhist priest of Shigaraki—yes, the ultimate tanuki town, the town whose sole purpose is manufacturing tanukis for an insatiable Japanese market. She once told me a surreal story of how, in the Fifties, Emperor Hirohito came to visit Shigaraki for the first time after the war. Now Shigaraki is a very small village, and there weren’t enough townspeople to line the parade route for this historic occasion, so what did the town fathers do? They lined the parade route with an endless processesion of Shigaraki-yaki tanukis holding tiny Japanese flags.

The ideal Japanese public: quiet, obedient, uncomplaining--but they're tanukis!

I can only imagine how Hirohito felt when he arrived and was treated to the hallucinatory spectacle of being greeted on either side of the parade route by an unending line of flag-waving Shigaraki-yaki tanukis. That’s the problem with tanukis. Outwardly they can seem like quiet, loyal, obedient subjects—but how do you know they’re not laughing at you behind your back?

Sure, they look innocent, but at night they change

Once I saw a real tanuki, in the inaka (countryside). At 5:30 AM one morning in June 1996, I was climbing a mountain by my house on my way to a shrine when I startled an animal with a long, brown, plume-like tail.

Looks like a fox at first, right?

At first I took it for a fox, but when it swung around and I saw the pointed face and the eyes, I realized I had come across a rare, authentic tanuki. We watched each other for about five minutes (some people say it must have been the shock of recognition, since I'm often accused of being a tanuki), and then the tanuki darted into the underbrush. I followed cautiously, then leaned down and called, in Japanese: "Tanaka-san? Tanaka-san irraishimaiska?" (“Mr. Tanaka? Mr. Tanaka, is that you?”)

That's what I saw

And I swear to God, the tanuki answered back with a sharp high-pitched bark (almost like a yelp), as if he were replying, "Hai!" (“Yes!”)

At that point I realized I’d better get out of there. This could easily be a mother tanuki, and that cute little bark could easily be its warning shot—keep away from my kids! And folks, take it from me, you never want to mess with a feral animal, especially a threatened mother. They possess a ferocity you never want to witness.

In 1994, Studio Ghibli, the powerhouse Japanese anime studio, released its charming feature Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko. Since Heisei refers to the reign of the current Japanese emperor, Akihito (Hirohito’s reign was the Showa era), the title translated means, Heisei-Era Tanuki War Pompoko, better known in the U.S. as Pom Poko.

The cartoon is a charming environmentalist fable about a tribe of magical tanukis who are threatened by the encroaching suburban sprawl gobbling up all the mountainous countryside around Tokyo, stripping mountains bare of vegetation and creating monotonous gray “New Towns” for commuters.

(The story is based on the creation of the massive Tama Town development west of Tokyo in 1967, which now includes the city of Hachioji west of Mitaka.)

The tanukis decide to use their ancient magical and shape-shifting powers to scare away the construction crews and greedy land developers, and what ensues is a hilarious farce that pulls out the stops when it comes up to drawing on ancient Japanese folklore to startle and scare the bejeezus out of modern audiences.

A beautiful, phantasmagorical painting by Katsushika Hokusai

The tanukis are lovable, too, and that’s an adjective I don’t use too often.

Pom Poko was the number one domestic film in Japan in 1994 and the first animated feature to be submitted for an Oscar for Foreign Language Film. The U.S. rights to the film were purchased by Disney, which then sat on them, fearing that American kids might get freaked out by the sight of warring badgers by swinging their gigantic testicles like medieval morning-glory stars and slamming each other over their head.

But between 1994 and 2005, abject Roman vulgarity made its steady, relentless advance over American culture, like the Nazis bombing Rotterdam after first promising to spare it. First Austin Powers gleefully downed a diarrhea milkshake (remember that scene? Jesus, I was fucking horrified), and then Bruce Willis amputated psycho killer Elijah Wood’s legs and fed them to ravening wolves while the victim watched smiling. (I think Sin City is a genuinely sick and evil movie, and I’m somebody who likes Rolling Thunder [1977]. If popular American culture can go that low, then maybe there’s no hope for us. Even Weimar never coughed up anything that decadent and knowingly fallen. Obscene Roman comedies and ancient Roman bloody revenge dramas, they pale in comparison.)

Quentin Tarantino comes out of the closet

Meet John McCain: as an Air Force POW shot down in 1967 while napalming Vietnamese civilians, Rolling Thunder's Major Charles Rane (William Devane) is the America that has to pay for its war crimes committted in Vietnam; here, after coming home, he's having his hand ground off in a garbage disposal by Tex-Mex border rats hunting for his strongbox of silver dollars, one of the greatest shockers of American cinema--but no blood is ever shown

Our post-Vietnam Captain Ahab: the wound that becomes a weapon (see Philoctetes)

After that assault on common decency, manic raccoon dogs smacking each other with their giant testes like hurling beanbags seemed charmingly old-fashioned, and by August 2005, Disney felt that it was safe to unleash the rural ribaldry of Pom Poko on an unsuspecting American public.

In October 1999, I attended a multimedia exhibition by noted Japanese anime artist Yoshitaka Amano, creator of Final Fantasy, when he unveiled his new character Hero at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in New York City. I met Amano and commented on his striking sketches of cunning, wicked-looking tanukis and kitsunes cavorting with each other while slinking around Buddhist temples and, well, obviously trying to trick each other. Clearly the cult of Tanaka-san reaches far and wide.

American jazz musician Lew Tabackin releases an album of swinging tanuki music

A pop group called the Tanukis

How omnipresent are tanukis in Japanese culture? There’s even a popular noodle dish in Japan known as tanuki udon.

It’s a hot noodle soup with deep-fried batter (tempura) sprinkled on top. Kitsune udon, on the other hand, is distinguished by sweetened deep-fried tofu pockets.

When I first went online, in late 1998, one of the first things I did was to research tanukis, and to my amazement and delight, I discovered a site that was nothing but live tanuki cam, all the time. A Japanese couple had discovered a family of tanukis living in their backyard (I think they were in suburban Yokohama), and they set up a live online camera to capture their friends’ nocturnal frolics. It was utterly charming and quite educational, as it illustrated tanuki family dynamics and many other aspects of the tanuki lifestyle, but I’m damned if I can uncover the site today.

While living in Japan, I collected everything tanuki I could lay my hands on. Not only do I have two tanuki tea kettles, but I have ceramic tanuki sake warmer, a tanuki teacup (the cone-shaped tanuki’s hat serves as a lid), a tanuki sake beaker with tanuki sake cups, and a tanuki keychain.

Of course, there’s just one thing missing from my life: a real-life tanuki. Would I like one? On a Platonic level, to be sure; but in real life, a tanuki in your house would be hell on wheels.

Don't mess with this tanuki

A tanuki fur coat--oh my goodness!

A tanuki tail (gulp)

In the mid-Fifties, my sister used to keep, as a pet, a raccoon with broken leg that she rescued in the woods and semi-tamed; it was a one-woman raccoon, as my mother used to say. Suffice it to say that a feral raccoon let loose in our Tudor house in Arden, Delaware, wreaked total havoc. My mother got rid of the raccoon just before I was born, knowing the beast would probably claw me to death in my cradle (no kidding). We donated the raccoon to the Philadelphia Zoo in 1955, and it appeared on a Philadelphia Saturday morning children’s TV show about the Zoo and enjoyed a brief period of media superstardom.

A highway tanuki crossing sign: don't hit the tanuki! I once saw one of these signs on a mountain road in Hyogo prefecture, and it blew my ever-lovin' mind

A pet tanuki? As John Carradine said in The Howling (1981), playing a leering old werewolf: “Wild things ain’t meant to be tamed.”

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Beatrix Potter's exquisite rabbit drawings show just how universal anthropomorphism is in human culture


imidcats said...

Really enjoyable articles.
Your Tanuki collections are lovely.

Old tanuki in Yokohama

Stubblefield said...

oneof the best tanuki-sites I found after searching the web having finished the following book. Well, yes - there’s even a whole book devoted to Tanuki (himself) by Tom Robbins...the cover of the german bookis much more art-like than the english ones, and you can seeit here [URL][/URL] It’s also a very nice Tanuki-Art-Picture I think!